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Yvonne Rainer: Dances and Films at the Getty Center

Contained within two rooms at the Getty Center is a lifetime’s work by conceptual art, dance, and film pioneer Yvonne Rainer. Dances and Films showcases the Getty’s complete archive of Rainer’s work—with journals, photographs, sketches, choreographic notation, films of performances, and a complete retrospective of her avant-garde films. In our contemporary world, where performance art (and art in general) is dominated by celebrity and personality, it is a welcome change to see that there are other ways of making art that do not rely so heavily on self-consciously contrived personae or the artist as celebrity. If anything, Rainer’s works strive to erase individual personality and her own charisma in favor of communication about a humanity that lies deeper than ego.

Yvonne Rainer. Rehearsal for Parts of Some Sextets, 1965, Gelatin silver print, 23.5 x 20.5 cm. The Getty Research Institute. Photo: Al Giese.

Yvonne Rainer. Rehearsal for Parts of Some Sextets, 1965; gelatin silver print; 23.5 x 20.5 cm. The Getty Research Institute. Photo: Al Giese.

Rainer studied under Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham before creating her own choreography, and was a founding member of the experimental and influential Judson Dance Theater in New York in the early 1960s. The show begins with a 1966 article on Rainer from the New York Post titled “Rebellion in the Arts,” published after her Parts of Some Sextets (1965), a performance that involved ten dancers and mattresses and a lot of “pedestrian” movements, or movements that come very naturally to a human being: running, jumping, falling, and walking. The Getty presents photographs of rehearsals and the performance, as well as Rainer’s own writings on the piece that include complicated lists and movement diagrams. The dancers did not have music to guide their rhythms, and learning the dance was incredibly difficult—Rainer wrote that some dancers “ended up memorizing [the steps] by rote, like multiplication tables or dates in history.” Of the piece, she said she “wanted it to remain undynamic movement, no rhythm, no emphasis, no tension, no relaxation. You just do it, with the coordination of a pro and the non-definition of an amateur.” She was trying to remove all personal affectation or theatricality from the work and let the human body move on its own. The next year she created her most famous work, Trio A (The Mind Is a Muscle, Part II) (1966), of which there is a looped video of Rainer performing the entire piece, one steady flow of movements.

Yvonne Rainer. Score for “Trio B: Running” from The Mind is a Muscle, 1966-68, Graphite and ink on paper, 21.1 x 18.5 cm. The Getty Research Institute. © Yvonne Rainer

Yvonne Rainer. Score for “Trio B: Running” from The Mind Is a Muscle, 1966-68; graphite and ink on paper; 21.1 x 18.5 cm. The Getty Research Institute. © Yvonne Rainer.

Also in this room is a display case full of journals and sketchpads from the late 1940s through the 1980s. For each journal, there is a pair of headphones with which to listen to a contemporary Rainer; she reads a selection of her old thoughts and then reflects on them at the end. I was so engrossed with these auditory pieces that I spent a full hour listening to them all the way through. It is fascinating to hear the artist’s thoughts shift and change; to learn her processes, depressions, and struggles; and even to see her handwriting go from a tight and perfect script at age 15 to a loose scrawl in her 50s. The physical properties of her handwriting mirror the looseness with which she tied concepts together as she aged, or perhaps belied her confidence in the “radical juxtapositions” of ideas she was using in her work. One entry, from her 1951–1952 journal, reads: “I was a plagiarist. Yvonne Rainer is a fake. I long ago lost what self I was born with—I can only steal from others. I try to make the motley assortment me through appropriation.”

Yvonne Rainer. Yvonne Rainer and John Erdman in This is the story of a woman who… performed at Theater for the New City, New York, 1973, Gelatin silver print, 20.2 x 25.2 cm. The Getty Research Institute. Photo: Babette Mangolte.

Yvonne Rainer. Yvonne Rainer and John Erdman in This Is The Story of a Woman Who… performed at Theater for the New City, New York, 1973; gelatin silver print; 20.2 x 25.2 cm. The Getty Research Institute. Photo: Babette Mangolte.

In the next room, there are more photographs and paper ephemera from her time with the Judson Dance Theater and the experimental dance group Grand Union. At this time, Rainer was beginning more narrative work, such as This Is a Story of a Woman Who… (1973). Eventually she quit dance altogether to become an experimental filmmaker, but in 2000 she returned to choreography. A collection of excerpts from her performance works from 1961 to 2012 plays on an hour-and-a-half loop.

The piece that brought Rainer back to dance is After Many a Summer Dies a Swan (2000), in which Mikhail Baryshnikov reprises “Valda’s Solo” from Lives of Performers, originally produced in 1972. In the first iteration, which is loosely based on Nazimova’s Dance of the Seven Veils, Valda dances sensually with a ball and eventually holds it—mesmerizingly—in the crook of her neck. In After Many a Summer, Baryshnikov wears a costume similar to Valda’s: Her strapless evening gown is harnessed to the front half of his body, with khaki pants underneath, to provide an examination of gender politics. It seems that Rainer came back to choreography with a much stronger sense of humor.

Another piece worth mentioning is AG Indexical with a Little Help from H.M. (2006), in which Rainer reimagines George Balanchine’s famous pas de deux, but replaces the male dancer in the couple with three female modern dancers; the piece clearly reveals the mechanics involved in such difficult choreography, as well as the inherent sexualizing of the female dancer. Spiraling Down (2008) is her most recent work, and it is full of quotes from sources as varied as Steve Martin, soccer legend Pelé, Fred Astaire, and Facebook, and physical juxtapositions of face and body, as the four dancers eventually wind down to Ravel’s incessant and haunting Bolero. The performance videos are so hypnotic, I watched them fully twice through. Realizing that the four hours I had to spend in the gallery were nearly up, I barely had time to look into the video gallery where Rainer’s avant-garde films are on a constant rotation. This is a vast retrospective contained in a very little space, but with the proper amount of time, it is an incredibly fulfilling experience.

In a contemporary art world where one-liners, memes, and easily digestible ideas are granted more resonance than they deserve—due to the technology with which we view art and the amount of time we are able to invest—Rainer’s works are slow and defiant. She trades ego for emotional resonance, and because of that, her works are ultimately more rewarding. Fifty years later, her works feel just as rebellious.

Yvonne Rainer: Dances and Films is on view at the Research Institute Galleries at the Getty Center through October 12, 2014.